In 1998, the Courtauld Gallery, in London, received an anonymous phone call claiming that 11 drawings in its collection were fakes created by the notorious British forger Eric Hebborn (1934–96). Since then, the Courtauld’s drawings cataloguer, Rachel Hapoienu, has done extensive research into each of these works. By tracing their ownership history, Hapoienu established that six of the drawings were done before Hebborn was even born.
“It got me to thinking about forgers and their mindset,” Hapoienu told me recently. “Why would someone claim that these are forgeries? And what other works do we have in our collection that are not by who they claimed to be?” The exhibition “Art and Artifice: Fakes from the Collection,” which runs at the Courtauld from June 17 to October 8, aims to provide some answers. Co-curated by Hapoienu and the Courtauld’s curator of paintings, Karen Serres, the show features around 25 drawings, seven paintings, sculpture, and decorative art.
Some of these forgeries were once thought to have been masterpieces by the artists Sandro Botticelli, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, John Constable, and Auguste Rodin. The oldest work on view is an early-16th-century print by the Italian engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, who copied it from a popular woodcut by Albrecht Dürer.
Raimondi’s early copies of Dürer’s work—including this one, which depicts a meeting between Saint Anne and Joachim—bore the German artist’s distinctive “AD” monogram. Dürer made a complaint to the Venetian government, saying that Raimondi should not be able to profit from his creations. “We consider that to be the first lawsuit over artistic copyright,” says Hapoienu. “It seems that the courts agreed that Raimondi could not copy Dürer’s monogram, even if he was still allowed to copy the composition itself.”
The Courtauld Institute of Art, founded in 1932, was the first institution in the U.K. to teach art history and conservation. “Since those early days,” Serres says, “people have been giving us forgeries. It’s interesting how they have now become objects of study in terms of the history of taste, whereas in the past they were really just pieces you had hanging in the classrooms.”
One of the most infamous forgeries in the Courtauld’s collection is the painting Virgin and Child, once thought to have been a masterpiece by Botticelli. It was unmasked as a fake after the British art historian Kenneth Clark observed that the figure of the virgin bore a distinct resemblance to the 1930s film star Jean Harlow. The forgery, which first appeared on the market in 1930, was the work of the Italian art restorer and copyist Umberto Giunti.
“He had taken all the best aspects of Botticelli, who can sometimes be a bit awkward,”says Serres. “He had just erased that awkwardness and created this dream Botticelli that doesn’t exist in real life.” Giunti hailed from Siena, which was a hotbed for forgeries during the first half of the 20th century. “It’s a town that had really been very impoverished since its glory days in the Renaissance,” Serres explains. “So when you had these dealers looking for an early Italian painting that they could sell for millions in the States, it was so tempting for [artists] to think, ‘I don’t have one, but I can make you one.’”
The Courtauld show takes a nonjudgmental approach to the work of forgers such as Giunti whose technical expertise kept them a step ahead of expert evaluators. “The point I was hoping to make,” says Hapoienu, “is that art forgers are a part of our history, and we have to judge them for their historical value. It’s not something that we should hide or pretend does not exist.” —Tobias Grey
“Art and Artifice: Fakes from the Collection” opens at the Courtauld, in London, on June 17. It will be on until October 8
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire, U.K.–based writer and critic, focused on art, film, and books